Nobody could call Joey Bennett a useless playboy who wouldn’t amount to anything, even though he’d skipped college and hadn’t been able to enlist in the Army like many of his friends. They also couldn’t say his bar and grill wouldn’t succeed, as the proof was spread out in front of him.
His foot tapped to the upbeat music the band cranked out. The tune had the customers whooping and hollering. He’d expected a full house the first time his bar debuted live music and the expanded dance floor, especially over Memorial Day weekend, but even he couldn’t have predicted the numbers that poured through the door. Customers filled every empty space and overflowed onto the back patio.
Tonight’s take would be epic. He was sure of it. He’d had a solid business before, but now the pressure of a construction loan hung over his head. If the crowds kept coming like they did tonight, though, he wouldn’t have to worry.
“Hey, honey, you’re lookin’ good.” The shapely blonde at the end of the bar sent him a invitation with her eyes.
His smile faltered for a beat, but he screwed it back on before he responded. In the past, the blonde with the smoking hot figure would have been just what he was looking for at the end of a long shift. Not anymore. He’d grown tired of his love ’em and leave ’em attitude. Night after night with one woman or another but always waking up alone. He might look outwardly happy to his friends and family, but the reality was markedly different. Besides, he’d had more important things to focus on over the past six months.
But he also knew that flirting led to more drinks and bigger tips, so he turned on the charm. “What can I get for you, darlin’?”
The woman brought a single finger to her pouty lips, sticking her tongue out to lick it while she decided, a move likely intended to be sexy. Finally, with a twinkle in her eye, she said, “How about a cosmopolitan?”
“Comin’ right up.”
Damn girlie drinks. Why can’t they drink a beer or a simple rum and coke? He shouldn’t scoff. Every drink ordered was another satisfied customer. Tonight’s success thrilled him, but something was still not right. He was content but couldn’t say he felt happy. Real happiness seemed to be meant for everyone else, not for him. He’d reached for the brass ring once and fallen short. He wouldn’t put himself out there again, not just to be left alone.
He put on a good front for family and friends. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Regardless, he didn’t need to worry about that tonight. The line was building behind the woman, and his focus should be solely on keeping the customers happy.
He finished prepping her drink, topped it off with a lemon twist, and slid the drink in front of her.
“Thanks, honey.” She pulled a bill out of her cleavage, laid it on top of another napkin, and pushed both across the bar, winking at him. “Keep the change.”
“You got it, darlin’.” Joey stuffed the ten-dollar bill into the pitcher behind the counter. He glanced at the napkin in his hand. The words call me were scrawled in bold red lipstick. Call her? Not a chance.
He stuffed it in the pitcher that held the other “invitations” he’d been given over the past few hours. He’d asked for this, right? This was what he got for spending the past few years squiring the women of Oak Grove around town but never settling down.
There had to be more to life than this. His one-night stands had grown stale, but he didn’t think he wanted a relationship. He wasn’t sure where that left him. Alone, probably. Much like he’d been since Shelby left.
His eyes fell to Lucas, who swayed on the dance floor with his fiancée. His big brother had done well for himself, having gotten engaged to Sarah last month. While Joey stood behind the bar holding… nothing. His eyes twinkled at Sarah, who smiled and laughed with him. Lucas fingered her blonde hair, and she laid her head on his shoulder while he rubbed the small of her back.
Joey swallowed and his chest tightened. He didn’t want a girl to call his own. Been there, done that. No chance he’d open his heart to another kick in the teeth. Women like Lucas’s fiancée were one in a million. The rest were like Shelby.
The tightness in Joey’s chest relaxed when his eyes fell on Sawyer at the end of the bar. Since they were young, his best buddy had always been able to put the smile back on Joey’s face.
“Am I ever glad you could make it. What can I get you?”
Sawyer climbed onto the only empty barstool. “Whatever you’ve got on tap.”
Joey grabbed two mugs, filled both with the new IPA he’d recently added, slid one across the bar, and took a long pull off his own. This was the first chance he’d had to relax since he’d opened the doors hours ago. Leave it to his friend to come in just when Joey needed him.
“Man, that’s good,” Sawyer said after taking a long drink.
Joey hadn’t shared with Sawyer, or most of the town, the other additions at the bar—this beer being one of them. Joey was saving those changes for his big announcement at his planned barbeque on Monday. He may not have enlisted like Sawyer and some of their friends, but supporting the military and their veterans was important to Joey. His launch, surrounded by his family and friends, would demonstrate that.
There were still a million other things he had to do before the barbeque, but he’d worry about that tomorrow. Tonight was about his grand reopening and showing the town what he could do.
Wait a minute… Sawyer usually had a late-shift patrol on Friday. “No deputy duties needing your attention tonight?”
“All’s quiet in town. I think because everyone is here.” Sawyer motioned to the crowd and chuckled. “The boss told me I could leave. Since it’s not often I get a night off, I jumped at the chance. Besides, I’m here if someone decides to get out of line.”
Joey turned back to the crowd as he and Sawyer drank their beers. They’d always commented on the ladies but tonight, Joey said nothing, and neither did Sawyer. Was he feeling the same way? The renovation of J.J.’s had the entire town laughing and dancing, but Sawyer and Joey stood at the bar like a couple of wallflowers. The rousing success of the renovations should have produced more than just contentment on his part.
The band kicked up the pace with a faster song, prompting screams of excitement from the ladies. As the crowd spun into the fast dance, the throng shifted and his eyes locked on her.
The brunette danced in the middle of a group of women. A magnetic smile that lit the room graced her face. Her eyes twinkled with mischief as she laughed with one of her friends. Her tight red shirt showed off her perfect breasts. His palms itched to cup them, to feel them in his hands. He could slide down to her slim waist and pull her shirt out of her jeans. Jeans that clung to her rounded ass and long, sexy legs. Damn. He’d always thought he was a breast man, but a pair of legs like that had him rethinking his priorities. His gaze trailed to the bright red stiletto heels she wore, heels he could imagine wrapped around his waist as he…
He shook his head. He’d mused earlier about being sick of one-night stands, but here he was debating time between the sheets with the gorgeous stranger. No doubt she was a friend of a friend. He rarely met a woman in Oak Grove that didn’t know someone he’d been with before.
One more look wouldn’t hurt. He wasn’t made of steel, after all, and her skin-tight outfit deserved to be appreciated.
It was a good thing he did, too. Walter Michaels sidled up to the brunette at just that moment.
The creep slid his hands to her hips to dance with her. It figured Walt would hone in on the brunette. Joey’s lip curled and his stomach churned. He and Walt had grown up together, and Walt took every opportunity to one-up Joey. Walt thought he was better than the rest of them. He probably had come tonight to make a mockery of everything Joey had worked so hard for. Well, he’d shown Walt. By all accounts, tonight was a rousing success.
As usual, Walt was being an ass, showing his disrespect for women and giving Oak Grove a bad name. The smile had dropped from the brunette’s face, and her shoulders stiffened. Even from this distance, Joey could tell she wasn’t happy with Walt pawing at her. He leaned in closer and a look of fear flashed in the woman’s eyes.
Joey sat his beer down. Not in his town, and certainly not in his bar. No way was that creep going to ruin today.
Sawyer must have noticed, too, because he stood.
Joey waved at Sawyer. “I got this.” He wouldn’t tolerate Walt harassing his customers. But as Joey rounded the bar, the woman’s look of discomfort changed as fire shone in her eyes. He’d heard the expression before, but he’d never seen it—until now. Before Walt even knew what happened, she raised her heel and drove it squarely into his foot.
He howled as he jumped up and down.
Joey laughed. Good for her. He loved a strong woman, and this one could clearly stand up for herself. The women with her laughed, too, as Walt limped toward the back, wailing and hopping on one foot. After a minute or two, the crowd resumed dancing, the incident quickly over and done. But Joey wouldn’t soon forget the woman who’d put Walt in his place.
Joey must have stared for too long because by the time he focused again, the woman in question was striding directly toward him like a runway model, her shoulders back and a smile on her face, no evidence of the previous emotions that had marred her beautiful features. She pushed through the crowd and stepped up to the bar.
He grinned at her and realized that, for the first time tonight, it was a genuine one. “What can I get you?”
“How about something in a bottle? What do you recommend?”
“I’ve got the perfect thing.” Finally, a woman who appreciated a good beer. Joey pulled out a bottle of the new IPA, popped off the cap, and slid it across the bar toward her. “On the house. To make up for Walt being such an asshole.”
“You saw that, huh?” Her entire face relaxed as she laughed. Thick eyelashes rimmed her deep brown, soulful eyes, giving her a doe-eyed look. Her ribbon-shaped lips, painted in a similar bright red color to her shirt and shoes, wrapped around the mouth of her beer bottle as she drew in a long drink.
His groin tightened. It had been a long time since he’d been turned on without touching a woman. But this beauty, on sight alone, had him hardening. “Yeah. I was impressed.”
“Thanks. I hope everyone in town isn’t like him.”
If Joey had his way, he’d show her exactly how the real men in Oak Grove treated their women. With respect. Not that he didn’t want to grab a fistful of her hips like Walt had. But not in the aggressive way Walt had forced himself on her. Joey would seduce her, turn her on to the point that she’d be begging him. Damn. “No. Most of us know how to be a gentleman. Even if Walt doesn’t.”
“Good to know.”
The conversation trailed off. Damn the silence. Joey normally wasn’t this tongue-tied around women. She opened her mouth like she wanted to say something but closed it again. He could introduce himself. Maybe he could get at least a name out of her. No matter what, he better speak before she headed out into the crowd to find another creep to dance with.
But instead, she spoke first. “I need to get back to my friends. Thanks for the beer.”
And then she strode away. What just happened here? After swearing he was done with women for a while, he’d immediately found one who interested him, and he hadn’t even gotten her name. Maybe he’d lost his touch, because everyone knew Joey Bennett appreciated a good-looking woman. At least until recently.
He didn’t stop watching as she headed to the corner booth. Her hips swayed and she added a little swagger. His gut tweaked with each step she took. When she reached the booth, her head whipped around, her brown hair flipping, and her eyes locked with his. She smiled and then turned back to her friends.
He couldn’t let her go without getting her number—or at least her name. But before he could regroup and head around the bar, Carla hurried out from the kitchen, frantic.
“Boss, you gotta get back here. Diego is behind on orders and he’s threatening to quit. Again.”
Dammit. Duty called… while the brunette was in the bar, smiling up at one of the regulars who had approached her booth. Probably for the best. He had more important things to focus on. He threw a last look at the brunette and as he started to wrench his gaze away, the woman caught his eye and winked.
Joey smiled. He hadn’t lost it, after all. He’d get her name all right… and her number—as soon as he dealt with the problem in the kitchen.
The rest of the night was so busy that Joey didn’t have a chance to lay eyes on the sexy woman again. When he finally emerged from the kitchen at last call, the booth she’d occupied sat empty. Oh, well, another missed opportunity. Since he’d sworn off one-night stands, it was a good thing she wasn’t here to tempt him. She wasn’t from around here, and he’d probably never see her again. That didn’t stop his blood from pumping as he pictured her, her hands waving above her head as her body swayed with the music. Why now, when he thought he had everything figured out, did one woman turn everything on its ear?
Joey grabbed a bus tub and walked around the bar. The band had long ago finished playing and packed up. He pressed a button on the jukebox in the corner, and music filled the air. He’d need the music to keep him company while he cleaned up. If the mess in the bar was any indication, tonight was a complete success.
As he cleared the glasses and plates from the corner booth and swiped the seat with a wet rag, he brushed up against something tucked in beside the cushion. He reached over to find a bright red purse. It had to belong to her. His heart raced as he imagined dancing with her, stepping up behind her, his hands on her hips as they swayed together. He should have done that instead of being so focused on the kitchen. Yeah, his business was important to him, but when had it become more important than the draw of a beautiful woman?
At least he now had a way to track her down. And track her down he would. If she were just visiting town, she might be the perfect woman to take the edge off. He’d been solely focused on the business in the past few months. With his mind conjuring images like it had, he definitely needed a few hours between the sheets with a willing woman.
He tucked the purse behind the bar, and with broom in hand, he headed back onto the floor to finish closing.
Bang, Bang, Bang. The bar’s heavy front door stung Brittany’s palm as she smacked the wood, trying to get someone’s attention. A Closed sign fluttered in the window, mocking her while she stood outside. Shadows moved inside—someone was still there. It wasn’t like she wanted a drink. She just needed her purse. Karen had told her it would be okay until tomorrow, but that wasn’t good enough.
With her hand above her eyes, she peered into the window.
A person was cloaked in the shadows at the back of the room. His back was turned, and he obviously didn’t hear her knock. She pounded again and the man spun around. With a tilt to his head, he peered toward the window.
She gasped. It was him, the bartender she’d flirted with. She hadn’t planned on meeting anyone on her visit to Oak Grove, but she couldn’t help herself. Once she laid eyes on him, she couldn’t look away. His smile drew her in, but that wasn’t all. She’d also seen an emotion below the surface when he was focused on his work and the bar. His smile didn’t reach his eyes and felt forced at times. He was handsome and rugged, not “metro-sexual” like a lot of the men she met in New York. Broad shoulders, thick brown hair, intense eyes. Exactly the kind of man she’d choose if she were looking for one. Which she wasn’t. That wasn’t why she’d come to town, and she certainly had no intentions of starting any kind of relationship with any man in Oak Grove.
They hadn’t exchanged more than a few words, but the sound of his voice rang in her mind long after she returned to the booth. His gaze had lingered on her when she walked away, and she couldn’t help but wink at him a few minutes later. A huge smile had broken out on his face when she did. But he hadn’t asked for her name and number. And she hadn’t offered it.
One thing could be said for Oak Grove—it had its fair share of good-looking men. And its fair share of losers, like the creep who had tried to dance with her when she’d been out on the floor with Karen and her friends. Brittany had laughed it off when he’d first grabbed her ass, but the pervert had gripped her even harder when she tried to skirt away from him. But she’d taken care of the jerk with a stiletto to his foot. Surprisingly, his touch, his aggressiveness, hadn’t bothered her as much as she thought it would. Maybe she had finally progressed beyond her childhood. Beyond the fear.
Guys were the same everywhere.
After a moment, the sexy bartender propped his broom in the corner and swaggered to the door, his thick, muscular arms swinging with each step. The corner of his mouth quirked into a comfortable grin like he didn’t have a care in the world or a timetable to live by.
Her heart beat heavy in her chest and her head swam. She ran her hands down her hair. What did it look like? Had her makeup worn off? She rubbed her palms on her jeans, wiping some of the sweat that had dampened her skin the minute she saw him.
Her hands shook. What was wrong with her? This was just a guy. And she was just here to get her purse. Despite that, her pulse raced, and she shifted from one foot to the other before the door lock clicked.
An initial confused expression on the man’s face changed to a smile as his eyes landed on her. His brown hair stood out from his head in several directions, like he’d raked his fingers through it more than once during the night. She could help him fix that. Her fingers itched to run through the silky strands. His square jaw sported a sprinkling of whiskers well past a five-o’clock shadow. How would they feel beneath her fingers? How would they feel rubbed across her…
She shook her head. What in the hell was she thinking?
His black T-shirt with J.J.’s on the breast pocket stretched across his broad chest and tucked into the waist of his tight jeans. She imagined running her hands over the tight muscles, to the top of his jeans, tugging the shirt… Damn. They just didn’t build them like this in the city. It had been a long time since she’d craved a man’s touch like she did at this moment.
“What? I’m sorry.” This entire time, she’d been staring at Mr. Hot and Sexy. And he knew it. Oh, he knew it, all right. She had this. Just a second to regroup and she’d be good to go.
Square shoulders? Check.
Big smile? Got it.
She was just here to get her purse. Nothing more. She didn’t need him thinking she’d left it behind on purpose. That she’d done it so she could see him again. Oh, God. That was what he thought, wasn’t it? Deep breath. Deep breath. You will not, under any circumstances, flirt with the sexy man.
“Can I help you? We’re closed. Last call was an hour ago.” Oh yeah, he knew, all right. He leaned against the doorway, his lazy smile lighting up his eyes. She clenched her fists so she wouldn’t cover her heated cheeks. Was she embarrassed? Maybe a little. But she’d never see this guy again after tonight, so why was she worried? She’d learned a long time ago that she couldn’t sit back and let life happen to her—she had to make it happen. And she would. As soon as she could get her brain to connect with her mouth.
“I’m sorry. I think I left my purse. Did you happen to find one?
“Come on in.” He motioned for her to enter.
Her shoulders relaxed, and her stomach calmed as she took a tentative step into the room. The bar wasn’t as bright as it had been, the long shadows casting a peaceful glow over the tables with the chairs placed up on them. The shiny mirror behind the bar gleamed. Gentle strains of music filled the air from a jukebox in the corner. It was a marked difference from a few hours ago, when the room had been packed with bodies and music thumped through the speakers.
He’d been staring at her the entire time she admired the place. She extended her hand. “I’m sorry I’m being so rude. I love your place. My name is Brittany Carlson.”
His large hand swallowed her smaller one, the rough callouses so different than the manicured hands of the men she typically met in New York. Strong hands. Someone who worked with them for a living.
A sharp jolt traveled up her arm, spearing her straight in the heart. She nearly reeled back, his touch jumpstarting her heart to a rapid beat. His touch conveyed warmth and strength, and it triggered a not wholly unwelcome ache deep in her gut. She held his hand for too long as her gaze stayed locked on his. She eventually withdrew her hand. Heat rose on her cheeks. Maybe he didn’t notice her complete awkwardness. Time to get a grip. Say something, anything. “So, Joey, did you draw the short straw for closing tonight?”
Joey smiled at her, sweeping his hand over the room. “No, I didn’t draw the short straw. This is my place. I own it.”
Her mouth gaped and her eyes widened. This guy? The sexy bartender was actually the owner? Of course, she’d assumed a guy like him, someone this young, couldn’t be the owner. She’d assumed he used this kind of job to meet women.
“You seem shocked. I don’t look like I could own a bar?” A hint of amusement lingered in his voice. It was like he could read her mind.
She scrambled to answer in a way that didn’t make her look shallow. “No, it’s not that. I guess I’m surprised you’re so young. You wouldn’t find a bar owner your age in the city. You should be proud. It’s a great place.”
“Thanks. Tonight was our grand reopening. We expanded the dance floor and added a band platform, as well as the outdoor patio. We’re going to have a bonfire out there tomorrow night. You should come.”
“Sounds fun. Maybe I will.”
“Can I get you something to drink? Beer? Soda?”
Was he ever going to get her purse? She’d ask, but she was enjoying his company way too much to interrupt him now. “A glass of water would be great.”
Joey pulled two chairs off the nearest table and motioned for her to sit. She obliged him, her nerves dancing in her stomach. Music filled what would have otherwise been an uncomfortable silence.
Joey hurried behind the bar and soon returned with her glass of water and a mug of beer. He lowered himself to the chair beside her, leaned back, and crossed his ankle over his knee, giving her another good look of his sexy legs encased in a well-worn pair of jeans. Either he knew what he was doing to her, or he was so confident in who he was that he didn’t care. She had to close her mouth to keep from drooling.
“So, Brittany, where are you from?”
“What makes you think I’m not from around here?”
He raised a single eyebrow at her, a gleam in his eye. His smile turned her insides to mush, and warmth swept through her entire body.
“You’re right. I’m not. I’m from New York City. West Village. Are you familiar with it?”
A bit of the glimmer in his eye dulled. He gulped on his beer before responding. “Can’t say that I am.”
Interesting. What was behind his reaction? This man had been happy, even flirty. But not now. He was angry… or disappointed. Had she offended him? She liked living in New York, and she didn’t have to justify her choice to anyone. “It’s great. I live in this fantastic third floor apartment in the cutest little restored brownstone. I can walk everywhere I need to—the subway station is a few blocks away, the market is just around the corner, and there are so many great restaurants and clubs. I never have to leave the Village, or at least Lower Manhattan, to get everything I could ever want.”
Dammit. Stop rambling. No amount of talking would convince this guy there was anything good outside the Oak Grove town limits. “What about you? Have you always lived in Oak Grove?”
He scrubbed his hand over his chin and she focused on his finger, thinking of their rough scratch against smooth skin. It wouldn’t take much for her to lean over and replace his hand with hers. “Me? Not much to tell. I’ve lived here my entire life.”
“Really.” Living here all his life meant he’d put down roots and would never leave. The man owned a bar, for crying out loud. Most of her friends her age were still clawing their way out of entry-level jobs toward middle management. He was accomplished, no doubt. This was his home. Small towns were a “no go” in her books. She’d even hesitated before coming home with Karen for the weekend. Memories tried to creep up, bad memories from another small town… her hometown.
No, she wouldn’t go there, not when she was having a conversation with the first man who’d intrigued her in a long time.
“So what brings you to town?” Joey drew another gulp from his beer.
“My friend Karen.”
“Karen McKenzie? Emma’s daughter?”
“You know her?”
“Of course I do. We grew up together. She graduated a year ahead of me in school.”
“We went to NYU together. She brought me home with her this weekend to visit her parents.”
“That’s great. Everybody loves Emma. She makes the best coffee in town.”
Brittany laughed. Coming from the land of a Starbucks on every corner, that remark tickled her. “As far as I can tell, she makes the only coffee in town.”
Joey laughed, too. “Maybe. She’s still the best, though. I can’t start my day without a cup and a muffin.”
Joey lifted his beer and swallowed several large gulps, his Adam’s apple bobbing with each swig. Even that was sexy. What was going on with her? She was falling over herself for this guy she’d just met. He set his mug back on the table and licked his lips. What would it feel like to have those lips on hers? Were they strong or soft? He stared at his beer for a moment. Did he want to kiss her as much as she wanted to kiss him? “Tell me something else about you. You said you grew up here. Does your family still live in town?”
His smile grew wider, a genuine one, and his eyes softened. “Mostly. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in. We’ve all moved out now. One of my brothers lives in Philly, but he’s not too far away. He tries to come home for Sunday dinner when he can. My sister still lives here, and my oldest brother lives in town with his fiancée and her daughter.”
His expression changed when he mentioned his brother. Curious. “What?”
“I was just thinking about my oldest brother, Lucas. He met his fiancée last fall. He fell hard and fast for her. She’s great and perfect for him. Her daughter is cute as a button. She’s five and she’s got these blond curls. I can’t wait to be her uncle for real, once they get married.”
He loved his family. It showed through with every word he said. But she’d learned first-hand that not all families were the same. Certainly hers wasn’t. Her childhood had sucked… plain and simple. Joey expressed a lot of good feelings about this small town, but she knew not every community was the same. Bad things happened… just sometimes behind closed doors.
For the next little while, their conversation spun around about nothing and anything, laughing and joking. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had such a good time talking to a man. And the conversation wasn’t awkward. They never ran out of topics. It was easy. Comfortable.
She glanced at her watch, shocked at how much time had passed.
“Oh, my gosh, look at the time. I told Karen I’d be right back. I had no idea I’d be gone so long.” She couldn’t believe she’d spent more than an hour with this man she’d just met. In New York, she didn’t trust the men she met in bars. But the authentic look in Joey’s eyes, the honesty she heard in his voice, soothed her nerves. She stood. “I guess I’ll figure out tomorrow where I left my purse.”
Joey jumped out of his chair. “I found a purse tucked in the booth where you ladies were sitting. It’s probably yours. But …” Joey paused, and in the silence, the sweet strains of a country ballad piped through the speakers. “… it’ll cost you. One dance.”
Joey extended his hand. She stared at it. Her head told her no; her heart said yes. She’d come to Oak Grove to get away from the city… to think. She hadn’t planned to meet a man. But this one intrigued her, and her body craved his chest pressed against her.
Finally, she accepted his offer. He pulled her to him and wrapped his other arm around her waist. His touch was firm but gentle. Exactly as she thought he’d be. He danced her around the empty floor of the bar, big sweeping movements, their clasped hands tucked between them. She fingered the soft fabric of his shirt while his heart beat a steady rhythm. In his embrace she felt safe and protected. Like she hadn’t been for most of her life. Like his arms could ward off all the evils of the world.
She tilted her head up. Even in her four inch stilettos, he towered over her. He smiled at her and their eyes locked. Every second grew more intense, as though he could see into her soul and expose every secret, every shame she’d worked so hard to bury. If she didn’t break her gaze soon, he’d realize how attracted she was to him. He was not one of the safe city men that she typically dated. Most of them were shallow, more concerned about themselves and being “seen” than achieving any real connection and intimacy.
Joey was different. His laughter, the twinkle in his eye, hid something deeper. There was so much more to him than she originally thought when she’d first spotted him behind the bar. This man was dangerous to her. Because every moment she spent with him intrigued her. She wanted to dig beneath the surface, discover what made him tick. But she couldn’t. This was all too much.
He pulled her closer as he continued to spin her around the floor, the sweet notes of the song echoing through the bar. He didn’t appear affected at all. At least not as much as she was. Her heart fell. She’d just met this man, but she felt a connection that she hadn’t had for a long time. To him, this was probably a normal Friday—work a shift, dance with the girls, maybe even take one home for the night. But to her, this evening out with friends had become so much more because of the man whose arms squeezed her just a bit tighter.
As the final strains tailed off, Joey stepped back, no longer looking at her. He seemed almost flustered. “I’ll get your purse.”
Sun streamed through the thin linen curtains Joey’s mother had hung on his bedroom window. He cursed the brightness that stung his eyes from too little sleep and shoved the pillow over his head. Morning had come way too early. He’d barely slept last night. And not just because he’d had to close. Images of the stunning brunette had filled his mind each time he shut his eyes. He’d known she was different from most of the girls he dated from the moment he saw her stick up for herself on the dance floor. And then she’d winked at him. Flirty, yes? But something more, too.
He’d thought he would have to track her down today to return her purse, but instead she showed up, knocking on the door. He should have just handed her the purse and sent her on her way. Inviting her in hadn’t been smart. Sharing a drink with her really hadn’t been smart. And asking her to dance? Definitely not the brightest move for someone who had sworn off one night stands or flings.
But he hadn’t been able to help himself when she stood outside the door, an expectant look on her face. Almost shy. A bit different from the confident woman who’d stomped on Walt’s foot. Vulnerable. That was what he’d seen in her eyes. That was what had prompted him to ask her to dance. He’d always been a sucker for someone in need.
What he hadn’t expected was the warmth that had flooded his body when she’d stepped into his arms. Her soft breasts pressed against his chest, and he resisted the urge to press into her, to show her exactly what she did to him. She’d been stiff at first, uncomfortable. But then she’d swayed to the music, and he could have sworn she relaxed and gave herself over to him as the song continued. Her breathing grew ragged as they danced, and he found himself matching his breath to hers, each one more difficult to draw.
He hadn’t expected the ache in his gut when he’d stared into her eyes. The depth of the brown color darkened as her gaze locked on his. The struggle was evident in the tensing of her muscles and in the furrowing of her brows. He’d pulled her closer but hadn’t looked away. She’d drawn him in, intrigued him. He wanted to know what was behind the conflict he saw. He couldn’t mistake that desire in her eyes. But she didn’t want to be attracted to him. A woman who didn’t want to want him was incredibly sexy.
She didn’t know how attractive she was. Her long brown hair was silky and smooth beneath his fingers as he stroked her back. A deep breath had filled his senses with a clean, floral, musky scent. A heady smell he didn’t normally associate with women but one that stirred him deep in his gut. Her body was slender and fit. She was a woman who cared about her appearance but didn’t put on airs. A contrast to the city girl image she’d tried to project.
Her smile had been genuine, had lit up her face, when she talked about living in New York. That should have been a clear sign to him to back off, but had he listened? No.
After Shelby, he had no intention of getting involved with someone who lived in the city. No, strike that. Maybe Brittany didn’t know any better. Maybe she’d always lived in New York. He could show her what there was to love about small towns. About his hometown.
As the night proceeded, as he learned more about her, she became more complex to him. He itched to peel back the layers of what made her tick. It had been a long time since he’d felt that way about a woman. Any woman.
But none of that would happen if he didn’t climb out of bed.
He pulled the pillow off his head and shoved it under him. His calf muscles ached from a long night on the floor, but he’d take that kind of pain if it meant J.J.’s was successful. He extended his arms over his head and worked the kinks out of his neck. A double shot of caffeine was a must before he headed out into the woods today, else he might step right off the edge of the path and tumble down a river bank. Especially if he couldn’t keep his mind off Brittany.
He’d planned this solo hike earlier in the week, knowing the activities at the bar for the grand reopening and Memorial Day would be overwhelming. He needed this time to recharge his batteries after putting everything he had into getting the bar ready for the weekend crowds. That was why he’d found his private retreat a couple of years back. Everyone saw him as the happy, nothing-bothers-him ladies’ man image he projected when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Tending bar, being on for his crew and the customers, took everything out of him, and his time in the outdoors—alone—helped to keep him sane.
That was just one of the many things he loved about his hometown—he didn’t have to go far to find nature. After being turned away from the Army due to health-related issues, he’d considered an outdoor job, like a park ranger or adventure guide, but the bar had fallen into his lap at the right time, and he’d leapt at the opportunity to be his own boss. And to show the town there was more to him than what they thought.
But it took its toll.
So, he’d get his caffeine fix and head out. Maybe he’d take the boat out and drop a line for a couple of hours. Or he could just hang out at his cabin and listen to the sounds of nature. A cabin no one knew he had—not even his own family.
After he parked behind the shops on the Town Green, he climbed out of his truck and hustled to Mug ’n Muffin. Residents and visitors alike were beginning to gather on the sidewalk and across the street in the green. Laughter and the sound of happy voices wafted on the air. He even had an unexpected spring in his step. He was right. Time in the fresh air and sunshine was exactly what he needed. As long as he could grab a cup of coffee first.
The strong, delicious scent of coffee and sweets filled his senses as soon as he stepped into the shop. He drew in a deep breath. Dang, he could get a caffeine fix from the aroma alone. Nothing smelled better, except maybe the clean, fresh scent of the outdoors.
Customers rushed around the shop, conversations built on each other, the holiday weekend drawing out many of the residents of Oak Grove and the surrounding areas. He glanced toward the counter where Emma and Karen worked and found himself looking for another dark-haired woman beside them. But he didn’t see her, much to his disappointment.
He had barely taken two steps when he spied his brother, Lucas, with his fiancée and her daughter, tucked at a table in the corner. He’d hoped to grab his coffee and leave undetected, but those hopes were dashed when Sarah spotted him. A smile broke out on her face. She leaned into the table and whispered, and two other heads snapped in his direction. So much for escaping unnoticed. He plastered on a fake smile and prepared for the encounter.
Before he knew it, Lily, Sarah’s five-year-old daughter, had leapt up from the table and run up to Joey, wrapping her arms around his legs and giggling the entire time.
“Mr. Joey, Mr. Joey. Mommy and Mr. Lucas and me are goin’ to the zoo. And I get to see Aunt Jessica and Nicky.”
Joey laughed as he picked up the little girl and flung her over his shoulder. “That sounds great, sweetie.”
He tickled her sides as he carried her back to Lucas and Sarah. Lowering Lily to the ground, he took the hand Lucas extended as he stood.
“Hey, Joey. Great party last night.”
“Thanks.” He turned to Sarah, wrapping his arm around her shoulder and placing a kiss on her temple. “Hey, Sarah.”
“Hey.” Sarah rubbed her hand over the blonde curls of the little girl who had returned to her mother’s side, the spitting image of her mother. Lucas and Sarah both looked down to the girl who had captured the hearts of his entire family, just as she and her mother had captured Lucas’s heart. Joey couldn’t ever remember seeing Lucas so happy.
Sarah had relocated to Oak Grove last fall and had immediately blended in to the tight-knit community. Before long, she was dating Lucas. He’d been in a bad place before meeting Sarah, but she’d helped him move forward, and he’d fallen in love with her. They’d recently gotten engaged and Lucas had moved in with Sarah and Lily. Joey had never imagined he’d see his big brother settle down. But here he was, with a ready-made family.
More power to him. Joey had no interest in a serious girlfriend. He likely wouldn’t be able to sneak away to the cabin, or take a day to himself, if he had a girlfriend nagging him for his time and attention.
“You had a good crowd last night,” Sarah said as they all sat and a cup of coffee appeared in front of him.
“Thanks, man.” He hadn’t even seen Lucas step away. Joey grabbed the mug and inhaled a deep breath of the rich aroma before taking a tentative sip of the hot liquid. “It was a great crowd, wasn’t it? I think we can safely say the grand reopening was a huge success. I’d remind you about the bonfire tonight, but I’ve been told you guys have plans today.” Joey smiled down at Lily.
“We do,” Lucas said. “Hate to miss it, Joey, but you know how it is.
Joey smiled. Yeah, he knew. He was happy for Lucas but glad it wasn’t him.
Sarah stood. “Lily and I are gonna take a quick pit stop and then we’ll be ready to go.” She leaned down as Lucas stretched up to give her a kiss before Lily and Sarah skipped away. His eyes followed them until they stepped out of sight.
“They’re really great, Lucas. Both of them. I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks, I think so, too. I can’t wait to get married.”
“Wow, who’d have thought.” Joey chuckled.
Lucas laughed with him before his smile fell and his expression grew serious. “I didn’t see Rachel at the bar last night.”
Joey’s heart sank. He no longer counted on his sister to work her shifts but hadn’t stopped worrying about her. “No, she didn’t show. She’s been skipping more and more shifts recently and rarely returns my calls. I’d stop putting her on the schedule, but I don’t want to give her even more reasons to not come see us. I keep hoping she’ll work a shift once in a while, so we can see she’s all right.”
Lucas rubbed his hand across his jaw, the corners of his lips turned down. “I don’t know what to do anymore. Do you think you can talk to Sawyer? Can he help?”
If only it were that simple. If they knew for a fact something was wrong with Rachel, Sawyer would be the first one in line to help… behind Joey and Lucas, of course. But so far, they only had suspicions. “I can talk to him, but I don’t imagine he can do anything. Rachel won’t tell us what’s going on. She just stays holed up with him.”
Joey wasn’t exactly sure how long it had been since Rachel had started dating Shane because she rarely came around anymore. Maybe a year? But from the day she’d met Shane, the light in her eyes had dimmed, and she’d pulled away from their family and her friends. She’d abandoned her own apartment to move in with him, much to their parents’ chagrin. But unless they had proof Shane was hurting Rachel, there wasn’t much they could do.
Sarah and Lily scooted out from the back of the shop. He and Lucas stood, and Joey wrapped his arm around Lily’s shoulder. “Have a good time at the zoo today, little lady.”
“We will, Mr. Joey. Maybe I can bring an animal home.”
They all laughed as Sarah smoothed down Lily’s hair. “She doesn’t quite understand these animals aren’t pets.”
Lucas, Sarah and Lily left the shop, Lucas’s hand resting gently on Sarah’s back and Lily’s shoulder. Always the protector in their family. Joey shook his head. He’d taken a chance on a life like that once and had fallen short. Never again. Not after Shelby.
He had good friends, a cabin in the woods where he could escape from time-to-time, and now, a successfully expanded business. He even had a few extra special enhancements to the bar to introduce on Monday. A project near and dear to his heart. He had a lot going on. He didn’t need to add a woman to the mix.
Joey cleared the table, quickly refilled his coffee cup, and headed to the counter to grab a muffin for the road. As he reached the counter, Emma McKenzie, the owner of Mug ’n Muffin, walked out from the back. The swinging door opened again, and out walked her daughter, Karen… and the woman who had occupied most of his thoughts last night. His stomach jumped and his heart raced. As exciting as it was to see her again, he couldn’t let her derail his plans to get away today.
When she saw him, a huge smile lit her face.
That smile stopped him dead in his tracks, unable to take another step, mesmerized.
Her brown hair hung in a ponytail today, and her deep green T-shirt hugged her curves before tapering down into a pair of faded jeans. Evidently, it didn’t matter what Brittany wore, because she looked sexy in anything. And probably in nothing. Stop it.
“Hey, Joey,” Emma said, shocking him from the direction his thoughts were leading him.
“Oh, hey, Emma. Karen.” He paused. “Brittany.” His eyes lingered on Brittany’s. A faint pink color rose on her cheeks. She lowered her gaze. Interesting. Maybe she’d had a sleepless night thinking about him.
He smiled, intrigued that she may have been as restless as he had been.
“That is one great lookin’ smile on your face this morning. What can I get you?” Karen asked.
“How about two blueberry muffins for the road? I’m heading out for a hike before the bonfire tonight.”
“A hike” Karen’s eyes brightened. “That’s perfect.”
Perfect. Perfect for what? What did Karen have in mind? She didn’t give him any time to mull over her comment or formulate a response to what he knew was going to be a bad idea before she continued.
“I was telling Brittany I need to help my mom today and she would be bored hanging out at the shop. I think a hike would be great—show her the area around Oak Grove. What do you say, Brittany?”
Joey froze. Had Karen just invited her friend to join him on his hike? His alone time. To his cabin no one knew about.
Brittany elbowed Karen in the gut, and Karen nudged Brittany back. “I don’t know, Karen…” Brittany fumbled over her words. The two women put their heads together and whispered. Brittany shook her head violently during the exchange.
This city girl wouldn’t last an hour out in the woods with him. There wasn’t a fancy restaurant or a dance club for miles.
Karen finished her argument with Brittany and spoke louder for Joey’s benefit. “It’ll be great, Brittany. Now you won’t be stuck here with me. You’ll have fun. I promise.”
What was Karen up to? Meddling, no doubt. But she’d gone too far, inviting her friend to his one place of peace, the one place all his own. Where he could go to get away from everything swirling around him and the pressures of his family and this town. As much as he loved Oak Grove, sometimes the well-meaning residents and his family went too far.
Now that Karen had put the idea out there, he needed to respond. He could let her down easy, explain how he wasn’t going somewhere she would be comfortable. Anything to keep her from joining him. Besides, he wasn’t sure his libido could handle being in close quarters with Brittany for any period of time. No, nuh-uh, she just couldn’t come. He’d apologize and make it clear to Karen that it wasn’t a good day. Offer another date to put her off.
Karen, Brittany and Emma all looked at him expectantly. He opened his mouth to say no, but something else entirely came out of his mouth. “You can come along if you want.”
Wait, what? That wasn’t what he meant to say at all.
Brittany’s eyes snapped to his, a look of hope in them he hadn’t seen a moment ago. “Really?”
Her features were relaxed and her smile was easy. How could he say no now? He couldn’t. Guess he had company on his hike today. “Sure. How quickly can you be ready?”
Brittany rubbed her hands down her T-shirt and jeans, and sweat broke out across his upper lip. She had no idea what a simple act like that did to him. His heart raced with memories of her body pressed against his last night, the smile on her face as she’d talked about her home, and the comfortable conversation they’d shared.
He still wasn’t sure what had prompted him to tell her he wouldn’t give her back her purse until she danced with him. He’d just wanted to feel her, and the music had spurred him to ask her to dance. She’d melted into him. But as comfortable as they’d been last night, he wasn’t ready to spend a day alone with her—especially a day he’d planned to spend by himself. Her scent would fill his truck and he wouldn’t be able to escape. He wouldn’t be alone with his thoughts because they’d be focused on Brittany the entire time.
So much for relaxing today. He rubbed his hand over the muscle at the back of his neck that had already tightened at the idea of Brittany joining him.
“I don’t have any hiking boots. I probably shouldn’t go. Really, Karen, I can stay here with you and your mom and help out in the shop. It’ll be fine—”
“Nonsense. I have a pair of boots in the car. Never know when you’ll need them around here.” Dang, Karen sure was all fired up for Brittany to join him today. Karen wouldn’t even let her friend get in a word edgewise. “I’ll fetch them and you’ll be all set. Mom, can you make them a couple of sandwiches to go while I run to the car?”
“Sure thing, sweetie,” Emma responded. Dang, were Emma and Karen conspiring to match-make?
While Karen and Brittany retreated to the back of the shop, Emma leaned over the counter, a smile on her face. “A force of nature, that daughter of mine. Isn’t she?”
Joey laughed. “No doubt. I have no idea what I just got roped into.”
Emma quickly prepped sandwiches, and before Joey could catch his breath and settle his rapidly beating heart, the girls returned from the back.
Brittany wore a ball cap, her ponytail pulled through the back. She was even cuter than before—and more innocent-looking. She rounded the counter, the expression on her face hesitant as she kicked her foot out, looking for his approval of the fancy new hiking boots.
He nodded to her but didn’t say anything else.
Emma grabbed the large brown bag she’d packed and carried it around the counter. “Here you go, Joey. I tucked some chips and another treat in the bag with your sandwiches. You won’t go hungry.”
Joey laughed. “I never do when you’re around, Emma. That’s for sure.”
“Are you sure about this, Karen?” Brittany’s voice wobbled
This was new. Where had the strong woman who had fended Walt off gone?
“Absolutely. You go on. Have fun hiking. We’ll hook up later when you get back to town.”
Brittany turned to him, her eyes hopeful but wary. She wrung her hands together at her waist, and her shoulders were slumped. She didn’t meet his gaze, her eyes darting anywhere but his face. “I guess I’m ready to go.”
Joey smiled at the woman who only came up to the middle of his chest. He hadn’t noticed her height last night—her heels must have really added on the inches. He grabbed the bag from Emma and turned to Brittany.
“I’m parked right out back.” He motioned to her, and before he could stop himself, he found his hand on her lower back to guide her out the door. He pulled the door open and followed her onto the sidewalk, gesturing to the left. “This way.”
“I’m so sorry Karen roped you into this. I swear I didn’t tell her about us meeting last night. She’s been worried about me being bored.”
“It’s fine. Although the woods is no New York City. I hope you’ll be okay.”
Brittany got a mischievous look on her face. “I think you’ll be surprised.”
Of that, he had no doubt.
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